How does one “network”? What do people actually do when they “do networking”?
I consider myself pretty terrible at networking. I never know what to say, and I feel quite awkward about it. I mean, isn’t networking kind of small talk? I am Finnish and Finns don’t do small talk (we consider silence a virtue, and in that context I need to have something substantil to say to justify others having to listen to me).
I vividly remember the first time I went to a conference and was explicitly told “to network”. It was like when I was told to “start school”. I had no idea of what the concept of networking (or school) meant – or what actions I was meant to take to “do it”. Also in both cases, it felt like one day I was told to go and do it, and the next I was already in the situation (at the conference, at school). I was acutely aware that the moment had arrived for me to “do it” – and yet I had no idea how to “do it”.
In both cases, I just stood there. Looked around me, observing, and trying to make sense of what others around me seemed to be doing. They all seemed to walk around, talk, interact. So after a while I tried that too. But I quickly realised there was an invisible layer. It was like I needed a magic key, to get through the door. I would walk around, try to approach people, but I didn’t get beyond the “Hi” and a friendly awkward smile. I was always left standing at the door.
Every now and then I would get through the door; only to find out that I had entered a room that was of very little interest to me. The other person and I had nothing in common, and the discussion was terribly boring, but neither of us knew how to exit (usually the other person was in it for the first time too, equally clumsy to me).
At that first conference I decided I hated networking. I found it hard work and tidious, and I certainly didn’t see any of the big benefits everyone raved about. Big effort to listen to and produce noise while nothing important was said. It troubled me though, that I didn’t “get it”, that I didn’t seem to understand or grasp networking, while everyone kept telling me how important it was.
I think that soon after that first conference someone gave us a talk about how to network effectively. I can’t remember much about it, but I do remember one thing. They said that a key to good networking was to identify a few key persons you wanted to speak to, then study their profiles, read their abstracts, and go and speak to them for 5-10min during a conference. Right. Okey. Finally someone was saying something I could actually execute.
Ever since, that has been what I do at conferences. Usually on the road to the event me and a colleague speculate about 1-2 people we each would like to speak to (people who we do not yet know, at least not well). At arrival we check if their names are on the list of abstracts. We circle their talks in the programme. And at some point we try to get a chance to speak to our respective people.
This has worked very well for me. Through this, and other interactions, I have got to know some great people in my field. Nowdays, at conferences, I rarely have a minute when I’m not speaking to someone – just because I have got to know people over time.
I often wonder if, to others, it looks like I am networking and good at it, just because I speak to a lot of people. It might look quite strategic, and deliberate. But, to me, most of my interactions with others at conferences are about catching up with colleagues I have already become friendly with. Talking research, developing ideas, cursing our ever so difficult work life balances, and changing notes about how we have been since the last conference. Maybe this is what they call networking, I don’t know. But to me it doesn’t feel like networking. It feels like collegial, friendly scientific discussions. To me, only those 1-2 new people on my “task list” feel like networking.
For a few years now I have also taken a second series of steps to do networking. During poster sessions I go around, and exchange words with people with interesting topics or posters. Usually I speak to 4-5 people. Most of these people are juniors, or sometimes peers. I find this a good way to identify emerging talents and new pockets of research I have not heard about yet.
I still think I am pretty terrible at networking. I struggle to know what to say and to find that right key. I still don’t really like it; but I find it ok if I know there is a purpose to the discussion (e.g. ask about their science, explore if they seem like a good egg to collaborate with). I also now accept that I don’t need to get it right everytime; it’s ok to only meet at the door and just say “Hi”. I have already been very lucky to find some great networks of colleagues with whom I can just be myself and have good discussions with, and actually one doesn’t need a massive network to do good research (one does need a network though).
I suspect my experience of networking is at the more vulcan end of affairs. I’d love to hear other types of networking experiences – please do share below by leaving a comment! No sign-in required.